02/25/2013 08:18 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Deprived, Not Depraved: Lewis' Story

I wasn't sure what Mr. Lewis' first name was. He told me that his mother's name was Delores, and that she called him Lewis, so I called him Lewis too. 

"I've never gone hungry; in fact, I've never thought twice about things like food or shelter," Lewis said in his Brooklyn accent, continuing the story he'd been telling me for five years, over numerous visits to an oppressive waiting room, as we both waited for our doctor's receptionist, Nancy, to call out one of our names in her uninspiring monotone. "But I used to be starving," he added mysteriously.

Five years earlier I'd found out that I'd damaged my liver during what I call "my Charlie Sheen years," which were full of coke, dope, pills, too much booze and well-documented debaucherous behavior. So the waiting room was that of my gastroenterologist, because my liver, like Lewis', was in trouble. 

"Medication-related hepatoxicity from my HIV meds," Lewis explained when we first met in that dimly lit waiting room in 2009. (I'd taken the seat next to him.) He quickly added that he was gay.

"Cirrhosis," I replied in kind.

On another occasion, Lewis asked me what I did for a living. I told him that I was the editor-in-chief of Genre magazine.

"Genre magazine?! I love Genre magazine!" he exclaimed, perking up. "I used to work at a hospital," he added.

On still another doctor's visit, Lewis reached into his wallet with his long, thin fingers and proudly produced an old photograph of himself standing next to Delores. He looked nothing like the tall, dark and handsome youth in the photo -- he was older and gaunter, with gray hair -- but he still had the same broad shoulders. I'd never asked Lewis his age, but I'd done the basic math, and he was easily near 60, if not beyond it by a bit.

Over the years, Lewis and I became liver-recovery buddies. For support I would meet him in the waiting room for his appointments, and he for mine. Other times we'd ask Nancy to schedule our follow-ups for the same day.

"Oh, I am sure I had far more fun," he said one day during our first year of doctor's visits, after I declared that at least I'd had fun destroying my liver. "Indirectly far more fun, that is," he added in his usual enigmatic way as he fanned himself with the same issue of The New Yorker that had been sitting in the waiting room for at least that entire year. "But the fun I wanted wasn't the fun I found -- or that I gave myself."

Lewis grew up in Brooklyn. The day after Thanksgiving 1979, he looked down from his third-floor bedroom at the giant grill on his father's brand-new, avocado-green Ford Torino. It was his last day of living with his parents.

"I was so nervous," he told me in the low, waiting-room voice we used. "I guess I stood there for a few minutes, in one of those stares you can't or don't want to break. My eyes locked on that Torino's gigantic chrome grill, and my thoughts raced about what Delores would say."

Lewis eventually managed to break his stare and walk down the three flights of stairs to the parlor-level floor, where he finally told Delores what he'd been afraid of saying. "I'm... moving to Manhattan," he said.

Delores didn't turn to face him; she just laughed and asked him if he was moving to the Village.

"It's gay there, and I am gay," he told her. "So, yes, that is where I am going."

"The supportive hug that followed melted me in her arms," Lewis told me as the waiting room filled with other sullen patients.

Weeks after moving to the Village, Lewis found that his roommate always seemed to be having loud sex behind his bedroom door. It made his new apartment seem far from the romantic setting where he had hoped to host a man for the first time, to fall in love, or to one day make a home with a lover.

"I'd lay there, staring at the ceiling, wondering how to go about being gay just like I had when I was growing up in Brooklyn," Lewis told me. "I hated bars and cigarette smoke. I didn't drink, I didn't do drugs, and I was repulsed by those back rooms and bathhouses."

In Brooklyn, during his youth, after Delores and his father went to bed, Lewis would turn off all the lights in his small bedroom, and then he would undress. He'd turn the small thermostat dial on his pilling, light-blue electric blanket up to 8, making it extra-warm, and then he'd slide beneath it. Naked, with his eyes closed tightly, he would glide his hand up and down his body, imagining that it was the warm hand of a man lying beside him.  Despite the sound of the street life and the traffic -- the trucks that barrelled down the road, and the taxis that stopped to let out the loud people coming home from partying in Manhattan -- Lewis would concentrate on his fantasy. But too often, the street sounds would win, reminding Lewis that he was in his childhood bed, touching himself alone, aching to experience so much as holding hands with another man.

"Masturbation at first helped to remove the ache for intimacy I felt," Lewis explained, "but by the next night, and nights thereafter, it worked less to satisfy me. Then it stopped working pretty much altogether. I wanted someone there with me. Worse, I found myself growing desperate after reading about all of the liberated men in Manhattan who were acting on their desires. I even started passing by guys I'd known for years as straight in my Brooklyn neighborhood, wondering if maybe they also harbored my ache for love with another man."

On one doctor's visit, Lewis told me about a low point he'd hit in 1979 while still living at home, quietly saying, "I thought I might lose my mind. I had become so distracted with the urge to be with a man that I accepted the advances of a young guy from my neighborhood who had always been teased for being gay. I followed his continued glancing back at me as he walked towards a door that led to the basement bathroom of my church. For the brief moments of our encounter, I felt an enormous satisfaction just being alone with a man who wanted me sexually. I thought my heart would explode in my chest. I was so nervous, though, so I declined his advances after he'd unzipped his trousers and moved my hand to the opening he'd made. I left without Mass that day. And I noticed that Delores had seen us coming back up the stairs, but she never brought up what I knew she saw."

A year later, lying in the dark of his Village apartment and listening to the sexual groans of his roommate, he broke. "I snapped," he told me. "I really did. And then almost as if I were on autopilot, I got up, got dressed and went out. To me, anonymous sex was the contender, and I was losing the fight. I walked up to the gayest young man I could find on Christopher Street and asked for directions to the Ramrod, a bar I'd heard about. Ten minutes later I was there with a postcard in my hand that advertised the New St. Mark's Baths, but I immediately tossed it back onto the bar."

1980 turned to 1981, but because of the time-consuming nursing position that Lewis had landed in the St. Vincent's emergency room, he found that 1981 was over as quickly as it had arrived. "I began to drink heavily after I got that job," he told me. "White wine mostly, like my father, but only to anesthetize my desires so that I wouldn't venture to the baths, the back rooms or the peep-show booths up on Eighth Avenue that it seemed everybody was enjoying. I went back to the Ramrod a few more times, but it turned me off." Lewis laughed, adding, "I amazed myself at how effectively I used white wine and reading Ken Follett spy novels to kill my libido." 

Lewis' basement bedroom in the Village didn't have a view of a leafy street like his childhood bedroom had in Brooklyn. In the Village, the voices and sounds on the street were far louder. For Lewis, sleep did not come easily. 

"As a nurse, you learn what alcohol really does to your body," he said. "It creates the kind of insomnia I ended up having. So I'd stare at the ceiling, just like I had as a child in Brooklyn, only with an ache for intimacy that had grown stronger, urges that were more intense, and loneliness that was way more overwhelming. Back then, men did not want to date or fall in love; they wanted to have sex and leave for more sex. I didn't want that." 

Gone also were Lewis' imaginings of lovers romantically touching him, or of the possibility of a relationship in which he and a man would make a home together. 

"I became hopeless, another well-documented side effect of the overconsumption of alcohol," he said. "I'd seen many cases of the same hopelessness and depression from alcohol among gay men when I worked at St. Vincent's in 1980. The drugs these men were taking made their hopelessness even worse, another reason I stayed away from the bars and the baths -- until 1982."

In 1982 he gave in, he told me, without any concern that the other patients in the waiting room might hear him. "I just couldn't take it anymore," he said. "So I started spending my entire weekend at the New St. Mark's Baths -- but not because I was depraved, but rather because I was deprived and starving for so long that I just gorged on the sex there. I'd seen AIDS start to ravage much of my Village neighborhood and terrify my colleagues at St. Vincent's, but it didn't stop me. Later, in the mid '80s, because I was fortunate enough to have access to one of the first HIV tests, I found out that I was positive. Back then I was sure I'd die soon, so I said no to dozens of drugs I could have tried and trials I could have entered for free. I said no to AZT also, because I saw how it did nothing but make young, healthy men sicker faster."

My stomach sank after Lewis told me that, not because of what he'd told me he'd done at the St. Mark's Baths, but because he'd told me he'd done something that he, for his own complex reasons, didn't want to do.

After that, we both sat silent for what seemed like several minutes. I was thankful when Nancy called, "Mr. Lewis."

"Somehow I lived, " Lewis said softly before getting up to visit Nancy's tiny window.

Not long ago, Lewis passed away. When I entered his hospital room to visit him, he attempted his best Nancy monotone, calling out, "Mr. Boulton." I smiled, of course. Despite being visibly weak and even gaunter than before, Lewis was upbeat. "I have to tell you," he said, "I'm relieved."

"Relieved?" I asked.

"I managed to stay sober since 1985."

"You also managed to stay alive since 1985," I said.

"But that's not the amazing part."

"No?" I asked. "What could be more amazing than beating the odds, Lewis?"

"No, no," Lewis said. "You haven't been listening." He slowly let his head fall back onto the pillow to rest. "I don't feel guilty anymore."